Private schools and educational privations

Like many parents up and down the country, we are currently in the process of reviewing the various local primary schools in our area in order to attempt to secure a place for our rising-4 for September entry next year.

Our decision is set against the backdrop of vehement arguments between the merits of private, grammar school and free school education propounded by those such as Peter Hitchens and Toby Young and that of a fully comprehensive system as advocated by those such as former adviser to Cherie Blair, Fiona Miller (Alistair Campbell’s wife) and Owen Jones.

To give Campbell and Miller their due, while I am no fan of their politics, they have certainly put their money where their mouth is – all of their children attended state comprehensives in the London borough of Camden. Of course a child’s home environment is at least as important as the school itself, Campbell and Miller’s children were bound to do well wherever they went, but nonetheless I have to confess a certain grudging admiration for them for eschewing the hypocrisy of other leading political figures in the Labour party, such as Diane Abbot who unashamedly sent her son to private school using inverse racism to qualify her decision.

 Were we fortunate enough to enjoy the salary and lifestyle of the Campbell family, faced between the choice of a private school and a Camden comp, the kids would be straight on the tube to the nearest school uniform outfitters to pick up their boaters, blazers and checked kilts.

If John Major is correct about the shocking influence of major private schools in public life, and I believe that he is, a healthy society is not one in which only the wealthy elite have access to positions of power and responsibility, the answer is not to introduce more quotas or to abolish private education, but ask ourselves what it is about private education that is perpetuating this situation.

Ripostes about old-school ties are glib, while social networking can undoubtedly help, it will only get one so far. You don’t get into Oxford, or even become Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequr on social contacts alone. There needs to be some measure of talent and ability. A contact (whether it be from school or somewhere else) can only get you so far. It may secure a job interview but if you don’t actually possess the requisite skills to be successful in your chosen field, name-dropping or appealing to Rupert’s daddy isn’t going to help you.

I attended two public schools, neither of which have ever been any use in securing any sort of position and neither have I kept in close contact with many of my peers. I didn’t go to university. No-one was interested in where I had been to school when I worked for one of the top five accountancy firms, or in investment banking or private equity. Of far more interest was previous experience and skills and qualifications to do the job in question, as well as possessing the necessary cojones to work in the unique environment of the trading floor. None of my bosses were privately educated either and blethering on about various members of the aristocracy or society set whom I used to sit next to in school nor indeed would discussing the offspring of various sporting superstars or celebrities have cut any ice .

But there is undoubtedly something that certain schools impart, whether they be private, grammar or religiously selective, which we should be seeking to distill, emulate and apply across the board, so that all pupils have the same opportunity to achieve both personal and academic excellence.

Educationalists and social scientists will have differing ideas about not only what excellence looks like, but also how to achieve it. My perspective is an unusual one in that my eldest daughter currently attends an independent school, due to provision put in place by her biological father, which is obviously not available for my youngest three children.

At present my daughter is caught up in three days of rigorous exams, the intensity of which have surprised me, given that she is only in Year 5. We’ve had weeks of revision sessions, sheets to download with expected knowledge, in French she needs to be able to spell concepts such as giving directions, the weather and the various shops and points of interest in a town centre, as well as decline two verbs and write in sentences. In history she needs to write essays, in Mandarin recognise and write characters, in Latin decline nouns, and the science and maths seems inordinately detailed and complicated.

At first I was rather taken aback, this seemed an awful lot to be placing on a nine year old, we’ve been concentrating on not stressing-out over exams, stating that as long as she does her best it doesn’t matter, and instead of cramming, doing bite-sized revision sessions once or twice a day. They’ve also been focussing heavily on revision sessions in lessons.

 I guess the point is to get them used to exams and assessment and to be fair my daughter is coping really well and isn’t fussed at all. Another child, her best friend, has just left however, because she had a number of learning difficulties and was simply unable to cope, feeling too different to her peers and under too much pressure. It demonstrates nonetheless that all schools are results driven, concentrating on measuring and evaluating children according to a given scale, comparing them against their peers, instead of concentrating upon helping them to achieve their own individual and unique potential.

 Since the age of 5, my daughter has learnt multiple languages as part of the curriculum, French, Spanish and Mandarin, and this year Latin has been added. I thought she’d struggle with so many, but she has thrived and loves her Latin and Classics. We forget, children’s minds are like sponges. In addition, they have PE or games three times a week, and regardless of ability the school ensures that all children have the opportunity to compete in sports matches, even if they subsequently learn that they are not very good and won’t always get picked, or need to practice skills. She sings in a school choir, which she loves, there are regular church services (far more liberal/muscular Christian that would be my preference) such as for Remembrance Day on Monday, tonight she’s singing to switch on Hove Christmas lights, she recently went on a three day residential trip to France, every year she is involved in a theatrical production, she produces spectacular artwork, in short the extra curricular opportunities and activities are excellent.

 No school is perfect and to our minds the religious character of the school could be better, comparative RS drives us up the wall, when you are of a certain faith, it isn’t bigotry to tell them that we don’t believe the tenets of other religions and we wish that she could learn a lot more about her own faith. We don’t want Catholicism to be that weird thing that mummy and dad do at home, but it is mainly unsupported and at times undermined by  the school’s culture.

But you can’t have everything, and, as the recent departure of her best friend illustrates, there is no one-size fits all school. There are many many things that her school gets right, they are rigorous about uniform standards and codes of behaviour, pupils are rewarded or penalised with pluses and minuses, there is a strong and healthy culture of house competition and each pupil is encouraged and incentivised to achieve their personal best and play to their strengths.

When looking around at the local schools for our other children, the over-riding feeling is one of sadness. We are the lucky ones. There are some excellent Catholic primary schools in the area, all of which are oversubscribed, and our younger children will be supported and encouraged in their faith at school. Added to which they achieve high standards academically and have good Ofsted reports.

It would be a lie to pretend that academically they were of the same standard though, the younger ones aren’t going to get to learn Mandarin, Spanish and Latin, nor are they going to enjoy the numerous extra curricular activities that are offered on site. With four children, driving around Sussex for three separate lots of ballet, martial arts and instrumental lessons, isn’t going to be logistically feasible.

Our home environment will enable our youngest three, if not to enjoy the same type of education as our eldest, at least to succeed to their highest potential and we can always  and probably will, supplement as necessary.

 The idea of the perfect school is a myth, regardless of whether it is religious, independent or state and will vary from child to child. Obviously there are things about my eldest daughter’s school that could be improved, not least in terms of better supporting those with special needs, although my daughter’s friend is now much happier in a local state primary. For us the perfect mix would be the academic and extra-curricular facilities of her current school with a strongly Catholic ethos.

My kids will be okay however and I’ll get over the fact that they can’t have the same level of opportunity as my eldest. Life isn’t always fair. Private schools have to ensure that parents get value for money and therefore need to offer something over and above the normal. If opponents to public schools want them abolished then they need to do something to ensure that they are redundant and eliminate the need.

As a Christian, my primary duty is not to educate my children in purely academic terms, but bring them up to understand that they are children of God with all the accompanying responsibilities. They need to learn that this life is only a prelude.

If I am regretful or melancholy over the fact that my  younger kids aren’t going to receive the creme de la creme education that every child deserves, I can at least console myself with the fact they will receive a decent start at a Catholic school.

What makes me so incandescent about this, is that schooling matters. It can help raise kids out of poverty. What about the children in the rough council estates of the city, whose parents don’t have a religious faith, who don’t have the cash to pay for private schools or move into a more salubrious area and are crammed into the portacabin or ICT suite of one of the local primaries which are bursting at the seams due to Brighton’s primary schools being at over-capacity? Why shouldn’t Katie Hopkins’ dreaded Tyler or Kay-cie have the chance to learn languages, or benefit from copious playing fields? Subject to strict standards of behaviour and incentives in school from an early age, a chaotic background can be surmounted.

 In an society which places personal autonomy above other values, there is no autonomy when it comes to selecting the right school for your child. If you are rich and or religious, you have more choice than most, but even so, you have to take your chances, there’s no guarantee that my children will get a place at any of our preferred choices. As happens to many, the children will be allocated a school at random to ensure the LEA have met their responsibilities. Typically the schools with the leftover places are those which don’t perform all that well, due to a variety of cultural factors. If that happens I’ll home educate, but how many families are in a position to do so?

Average is not acceptable. We should be aiming for excellence across the board and for all levels of ability, instead of moulding children into a one-size fits all. Whether at primary or secondary level, access to academic, sporting, musical or creative excellence should not be the preserve of the super-rich. Every time I appreciate how good her education is, I am overcome with a pang of sadness intermingled with outrage that this is not on offer for all.

Once upon a time private education was within the reach of many middle-class families and were also accessible to children from working class backgrounds thanks to the now-abolished assisted places scheme. Thanks to rising costs of living and the bubble in the housing market, above inflation private school fee increases, mean that they are now accessible only to those with a hefty chunk of disposable income. Together with an increasingly ideological curriculum, it’s hardly a surprise that home-schooling is in the ascendance, or that Free Schools are being set up left, right and centre. People want more than what is currently on offer.

Silly things

Owen Jones, the socialist wunderkind and current darling of the Labour party, came under criticism yesterday when a vitriolic email chock full of threats and expletives that he had written at the tender age of 16, came to light. Whilst not sharing his zeal for socialist ideology, I have to confess some sympathy for him, though his email was absolutely shocking in content, not the sort of thing that one would expect from an intelligent, sensitive, politically aware teenager, one has to take his age into account. He was an immature perhaps somewhat naive teen, firing off an angry email in the days of the dot com bubble, the internet was only just becoming on-stream into people’s homes and he lacked the nouse to realise that this might come back to haunt him one day.

We could draw all sorts of conclusions about how this gives an insight into his character, the teenager is the adult in formation, how this is characteristic of those on the left who resort to ad hominem and abuse when they run out of argument, this email could add further ammunition against a personality and cause that is already disliked, or we could exercise some intellectual honesty and admit it as being the product of an immature teenager who has yet to get his passions or his writing under control. Though we can suck our teeth in horror, I can’t get too uptight about it, because to do so would be totally hypocritical knowing what I was like as a 16 year old. Without putting too fine a point on it, I wasn’t the most upstanding example of virtuous youth, I was busy developing my taste for tobacco for example, a habit that I have long since eschewed and I would be horrified if my children followed my pitiful teen example. There can be few people who didn’t do at least one silly and ill-thought through thing as a teenager, whatever that might be and though one cannot condone immature or adolescent mishaps, it seems wholly unfair to hold it against the fully-grown and more emotionally mature adult. All of us make mistakes, the trick is to learn from them and hopefully prevent and guide others from doing the same.

What this does highlight however, is the notion of teen maturity and how this varies wildly between individuals. Plenty of teenagers are fine upstanding examples of youth, others have some way to go. Owen’s mistake is indicative of the tendency of youth to live in the short-term with little thought to how their actions may affect them in the future. Owen himself admits, that the year 2000 was a particularly difficult and tumultuous one for him. Teens are a potent heady mix of burgeoning sexual hormones who in many cases lack the emotional maturity to deal with challenging situations.

This is why the sexual age of consent is set at 16, recognising that this is the minimum average age at which a person can be said to be able to consent to sexual intercourse and its implications. Most sensible people would recognise that children under this age lack the necessary maturity and responsibility to be able to handle a sexual relationship. There is currently something of a problem in the UK, with over a third of teenage girls reporting that they have experienced sexual violence. A government campaign is underway in order to educate teenagers that sexual violence is unacceptable. Speaking in March, Nick Clegg, the deputy PM said

When you’ve got a situation where a third of teenage girls say they have been subject to sexual coercion and abuse, when lots of teenagers say in surveys that they think it’s OK for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl they spend time with, something’s going wrong and we need to challenge it

The current liberal narrative assumes that teenagers have all the emotional intelligence, experience and reasoning faculties of adults, hence they must be treated as such. Whilst this is true to a certain extent, as Owen Jones’ email and as the levels of teen sexual violence suggest, teens are not yet fully formed adults and must therefore be given a level of protection and their minor misdemeanours not held against them.

The law in England states that a 16 year old can have sex but lacks the maturity to enter into a lifelong commitment such as marriage, without the consent of their parents. A 16 year old is furthermore unable to obtain a credit card or enter into any serious long-term financial commitments. The law exists for their own protection.

What I can’t understand in the light of this, is why it is thought acceptable for an adult, with no intimate personal relationship to a child, to teach that child all about the various methods of contraception, in order to protect themselves and no thought is given to the fact that teenagers can be and often are irresponsible. Why do teachers think that if they teach teenagers all about how to have “responsible sex” that teens are therefore going to go out and behave in a responsible fashion? In an ideal world this might be the case, but the reality is very different. The normalisation of sexual relationships between teens that goes on in the classroom, unwittingly gives consent to those who wish to coerce unwilling partners into sex and puts further pressure on teens to comply with what seems normal. Many teens are desperate to appear adult and grown-up beyond their years and hence sex is seen as reinforcing their maturity, particularly when Miss thinks it’s OK so long as you use a condom and don’t get pregnant.

How many teens are effectively able to use contraception? How many teens might forget to use a condom or may misuse one in the heat of the moment? That’s not to say that teenagers are stupid or ignorant, far from it, but statistically they are far less risk averse than the average adult. How many teenage girls have thought through the long-term consequences of taking hormonal contraception, whether or not they will be suited to it and the wisdom of bombarding one’s burgeoning reproductive system with a cocktail of synthetic hormones designed to simulate pregnancy at the onset of puberty?

Though this year’s figures show a slight reduction in teen pregnancies, there has been an explosion in the rate of teen STDS. More teenagers are having sex, slightly fewer are getting pregnant, but many many more are requiring treatment for diseases that could leave them scarred or infertile.

So if we can, as we should, excuse Owen Jones, a youthful indiscretion, recognising his immaturity, why are we therefore unable to recognise the vulnerability and instability of teenagers? Why is the teaching of abstinence as the ideal, deemed such a taboo amongst our chattering liberal classes? Why if we recognise that teenagers are not responsible adults, are they able to be given hormonal treatment, encouraged to engage in behaviour that could have lifelong repercussions and given access to abortion without parental consent? Why are 16 year olds not allowed to marry without parental consent, but able to take medication which could have serious and damaging side-effects? Why are those under the age of consent able and encouraged to abort an unwanted pregnancy without parental input? Why are parents not deemed capable and positively prevented from protecting their children from doing silly things.

Why does society allow a total stranger to give out a contraceptive pill to a 13 year old and encourage her to engage in illegal behaviour that could endanger her and impact her for the rest of her life? Are synthetic hormones, STDs and abortions less risky for the health of a pubescent child than a cigarette? That is what the law would suggest.

As Owen Jones acknowledges, teenagers do silly things for which they cannot be held responsible later in life. Such is the nature of adolescence. That does not mean that the silly things should be given licence and encouraged, even if they can be forgiven.